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How I Shot This With a Cheap and Unimpressive Looking Backdrop

Photography can become ridiculously expensive with gear and props and all the other necessities. So when there is a chance to save, I save!

This shoot was planned really last minute as the model was in Singapore for only a short amount of time so I didn’t really have the luxury to come up with a strong concept. Deciding to do away with my usual plain backdrop, I remembered I had some shiny red paper stored away that I had bought on a whim for $1 a piece. So, I did a little arts and crafts and taped them all together. Honestly, it looked like a kid did it, but I knew it was going to be good enough for photography with lights and magic to turn it into a fabulous background. I taped it up to two C-Stands and voila, new backdrop!

Equipment List

Lighting Setup

We did not have much time to shoot due to logistical issues, so I used Exlixxier’s newly upgraded software, set.a.light 3D, to plan my lighting more accurately during hair and makeup time. I absolutely love this software! It helps me come with lighting setups so much faster and I'm able to see how certain modifiers would affect the set without actually having to set them up only to not use them.

As the paper was made out of reflective material, I knew I needed a light shining on it to show off the texture and shine. I had one light on the left, top down shining straight onto the backdrop. For main light, I used a beauty dish, because it’s an easy go-to light that’s flattering. Wanting to push the mood even more, I had two lights from the back shining on each side of the model, covered with red cellophane paper (I ran out of color gels). For one of them, I used a white umbrella facing away for a softer look, while on the other, I used my Profoto A1 because it was so easy to set up.

Here’s a BTS for a clearer look. Ignore the shoe I used for model placement.

Even though we only had an hour and a half to shoot, we managed to bang out four looks anyway, and I really like these images! I am really happy I trusted my instincts that day and decided to actually buy those papers.

Closing

What are your cheap buys that have been useful in your photoshoots? Put down in the comments and let us know!

Photographer: Shavonne Wong
Model: Mia Sabathy
Makeup: Benji Oo and Xuan
Wardrobe: Violet Foo

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71 Comments

Shavonne Wong's picture

Indeed! I'm just in the midst of planning a shoot with mylar background too! Sometimes new photographers just gotta understand, it's all about how it looks in camera... even if it looks like crap in real life hahaha.

Elan Govan's picture

Shavonne, I just read the equipment list used during this photo-shot, and they all seem expensive. If the idea was to go cheap, I am more than happy to loan you my Canon EOS 300D for your next exotic shoot on the cheap. Photography using natural day light is even better, its free.

Blue Milk's picture

I'm tempted to automatically thumbs down your erroneous and off topic statement but I'm curious what you think the 4 ways are?

Shavonne Wong's picture

Cheap... backdrop. Honestly, you can likely do the same thing with cheaper flashes and cameras. I used a Canon 5Dmk2 for 7 years of my professional career along with lights from China. I didn't always have all these expensive equipment but when I can use them, obviously I will.

Elan Govan's picture

Hey,I buy speed-lite made in China as well and they are very well made and reliable. As for the Canon 5D Mk 2, have the shutter changed soon, it will last another couple more years.

So really, the story is not all about cheap backdrop is it? Its about utilising what ever you can get your hands on at short notice to get the job done.

Shavonne Wong's picture

I only recently upgraded out of my 5Dmk2 because the tethering port was spoilt and it didn't make sense getting it repaired anymore. Otherwise, I'm 100% certain this would have been done with that camera.

As for the point of this article, well yes it was about utilizing whatever you have on hand.. but what I had on hand WAS that cheap backdrop.
When I was first starting out in photography, those papers wouldn't have been something I would have noticed at the shop because I didn't know the potential behind it and they looked kinda drab in real life. That's the point of this article, even cheap things like this backdrop paper can produce great results.

Elan Govan's picture

I will write my photographic journey via private communication Shavonne. Putting a side the leg pulling, you are doing great creative work. All the best.

amplighter's picture

*FacePalm* Do it again.. but this time use a cheap disposable camera. You've used cheaps stuff as your back drop etc, So why not use several different cameras to prove ANYONE can take this shot without spending 5K for a 50MP camera..

Shavonne Wong's picture

I could, but the point of the article was that if you shine a light at cheap shiny paper, you can get a pretty cool backdrop. Doesn't matter how expensive your camera is.
I worked hard to have the current gear I have so I'm gonna use them but this whole setup can be replicated easily. That's why I wanted to show it the setup, not talk about equipment.

If I don't put up an equipment list, people ask about equipment. If I do put it up, people complain.
It's not about the gear!

amplighter's picture

Just another reason people like you give false hope to people like me, in not being able to achieve the same results because we're not able to afford a 5K camera like yours. Thus I'll no longer respond to anymore of your articles. Work with me, not against me. Treat me like an equal by using the same gear I do. Go out buy a cheap 35mm or point and shoot and do it again..

Shavonne Wong's picture

Hahaha that's funny, tell another one!

Alexander Petrenko's picture

If you like your gear - don’t ask others to use it. Write your articles on how you use it to make great photos.

PS: It’s not a camera that matters.

PPS: It’s lenses ;)

Shavonne Wong's picture

Haha my lens are the cheapest versions of the 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 100mm.
But they are all pretty great lens if you ask me!

Jason Bodden's picture

I don't know why people aren't getting that it was about making even incredibly cheap paper look great as a backdrop. Harping on the expensive equipment is pointless when it is SO not what the damn article is about. These people need comprehension skills. Great article.

Craig Beckta's picture

This is pretty cool, thanks for sharing.

Shavonne Wong's picture

My pleasure! Glad you like it!

David Wild's picture

Well I find this article very helpful, ignore those ingrates. Thank you for freely share all these information!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Appreciate it, thank you!

Michael Majestic's picture

I bought piece of the 4x6 wall insulation that works great as reflector. Since it is rigid it works better than lot of fabric reflectors

Shavonne Wong's picture

Yeah I tried using a mylar raincoat as a reflector... didn't work out too well! Haha.
Bonus points to the wall insulation if it was cheap!

LA M's picture

Good idea..

Shavonne Wong's picture

Thank you! Glad you found it helpful (:

yanpekar's picture

The background does look cheap and unimpressive, to be honest. And distracting viewer's attention from the portrait. If the point of the photo shoot was to show how to create a portrait using cheap materials then what was the point of using 4 expensive Profoto flashes?? If you are already using expensive gear, why would you want to ruin the results by using a cheap backdrop? It is also possible to create much better results with using less flashes and less expensive gear.

yanpekar's picture

This is clear. The QUESTION was - what is the point of using cheap background and ruin results if you are already using expensive gear. It does not make any sense.

yanpekar's picture

It is funny that you are speaking on behalf of all the photographers in the world:) No reason to be aggressive or defensive. We are here to exchange opinions.

yanpekar's picture

Very rude reply. Looks like you were too fast to post it, without giving yourself a chance to think before pressing "Post" button. All the best.

Shavonne Wong's picture

I used 4 expensive Profoto flashes because... I have them. You have to understand, this shoot was for my own portfolio, I just decided to share some BTS and know how on process of getting the images. Why should I downgrade on gear I worked hard for?
I also never said it was impossible without cheaper gear. In fact, it is very much possible. That's why this wasn't a article on gear.

And fine this might be subjective but I like the end results of how the shine of the backdrop add to the images. So it all worked out for me.

yanpekar's picture

Photography is a communication language. If you have to explain the final result to other people then maybe the message you were trying to communicate via your article or photo was not clear. As for the final result - human eyes are build in such a way that first of all we see the brightest parts of an image. There is a very bright spot on the left side (which takes a lot of negative space) of your image, and it distracts attention from the portrait. It may worked out for you, but if you are shooting for a client, the question you may consider asking is "did it work out for my client?". Although it is understandable that you used expensive lights because you have them, using a cheap backdrop devalued the usage of expensive lights as overall the image looks cheap. Sorry for the truth.

Shavonne Wong's picture

You say it looks cheap, a potential cosmetics client is inquiring after seeing the images. I guess I'm glad they're the one I didn't have to explain my photo to and you're the one who finds it cheap.

yanpekar's picture

It is great that the images helped you to find a potential client. All the best with it, and I wish you that the client will book your services. I had no intention to offence your feelings, I just told you the truth - the image does look cheap and lacks aesthetics. This is, of course, only my opinion, and I do not expect you to agree with it. It is perfectly fine to disagree, especially taking into account all the efforts and time you put in to create it. It does help to listen to other people opinion rather than being overly defensive. When you post an image publicly, you should be ready for critics. It helps us grow and become better. All the best to you.

Shavonne Wong's picture

I apologise if I came across overly defensive.
I had to argue for the ability to use my own equipment for the last few comments so I was a little annoyed about any more mention on equipment.

One thing though, you mention how you thought John was speaking on behalf of all the photographers in the world. Are you speaking on behalf of all them too when you think these images look cheap and lack aesthetics?

I'm open to criticism, I'm just picky on who I listen to. After all, not all criticism is good criticism.

yanpekar's picture

Thank you for your reply. As per my earlier comments, I was expressing my own opinion. I have never said that I was speaking on behalf of someone else. If you had to argue over the comments of several people then maybe the message you were trying to communicate by your article or images was not very clear? Maybe, if you would not have mentioned expensive gear used (if the main point was about cheap backdrop then it was not really necessary to mention all expensive gear), it may have helped to avoid confusion. To me, the title of the article was also confusing. If one can use a cheap backdrop (or any other cheap gear) to create great looking image - this is one thing. But why would one want to use a cheap backdrop to create an image which (in this case, in my opinion) looks cheap / not so great? Would he or she try to use another solution to create a better image instead of using a cheap gear knowing that it will affect the final result? As for aesthetics, there are many resources on the Internet with great examples of aesthetically pleasing images. Please do not get offended by my opinion. It is not possible to please everyone. Some people like our images, others don't. And that's fine. Thank you, and all the best.

Jason Bodden's picture

Then God forbid you should ever see any backlit images. You are gonna FREAK. Oh, and the message in the article was quite clear. It was even - wait for it.......waaaiiiiiiiiit for iiiiiiiiiiit.........waaaaiiiit fooooorrrr iiiiiiitttttt - in THE NAME OF THE ARTICLE. Wow. How about that? :O

Jason Bodden's picture

This didn't ruin anything. The images are gorgeous. And I'm sure if this was just an image post, and you had no clue the background was super cheap paper, you probably would have been fine with it. And what does using expensive lights have to do with what the background costs? FYI, I'm quite sure countless images you find beautiful and captivating were probably shot with cheap ass material as a background in conjunction with expensive lights or vice versa. Making cheap ass shit look amazing in images isn't something new. Some of my favourite Beauty/Fashion/Portrait photographers, including Irene Rudnyk, Lindsay Adler, Jeff Rojas, and Sue Bryce, all admittedly use cheap stuff as props and backgrounds regularly. It's just that they know how to make them look like beautiful elements in the images because of how they shoot. Rethink this comment, bud, because it makes precious little sense.

yanpekar's picture

The problem is there are people who have no taste and / or no clue about what aesthetics is. For them, some images may look gorgeous. People have different opinions and this is fine. I can't afford wasting more time on this. All the best.

David Wild's picture

Are you implying you have taste and aesthetic and people who disagree with you don't? Cause it sure sounds like it!

yanpekar's picture

Hello. You are free to make any assumptions. You may consider reading my earlier comments carefully. I only expressed my OWN opinion, did not say anything about other people, and did say that having different opinions is fine. WHERE in my comment " there are people who have no taste and / or no clue about what aesthetics is." did you see anything saying that people who disagree with me have no taste?? This is a generic comment, and it is what it is - many people in this world, including many photographers, have no or little taste. I take responsibility for every word I said, but I can't take responsibility for assumptions you make. Would you please stop being aggressive and rude? This is a place to exchange opinions, not to fight. It is too often when people allow themselves to be aggressive on the Internet, and say things they would think twice before saying face to face.

R. P.'s picture

3x profoto 100mm L-glass and 5dsr.... Yup...

Shavonne Wong's picture

Not about the gear. Can be replicated with cheaper gear. Also, as title mentioned, cheap backdrop.
(And... Not a L lens. Would like one though, sure)

Kai Fredriksen's picture

I am truly puzzled why so many talk about the price of the flashes and camera, she shows the set up, she shows how she worked with the backdrop - which this article is about.
It is great to see how it ends up looking on camera, in essence the model is just context.
I got a bloody expensive camera (which does not matter in anyway for this comment), but I struggle with the backdrop/framing, so this article very interesting for me!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Thank you! And thank you for understanding the point of this article!

Jason Bodden's picture

Yaaayyyy! Finally, someone with actual comprehension skills.

Richard Bradbury's picture

Thanks for sharing Shavonne.

Results look great.

To the people harping on about the gear used. The problem is not Shavonne's gear it's your mindset about gear over all. You are holding you back not your gear.

Try to focus on the other elements of these articles and learn from them.

Shavonne Wong's picture

Appreciate it Richard!

Richard Bradbury's picture

You are welcome. Shavonne. Have a good weekend.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

Cheap is good!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Spend money on food instead!
That's what I do anyway.

Jeffrey Beal's picture

Some crazy responses from people who just don't get it. Nice idea!

Shavonne Wong's picture

Thank you Jeffrey, appreciate it! (:

Jorge Cevallos's picture

Great results. I always enjoy your articles. You are a great artist!

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